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The Power of the Journey (Parshas Matos/Masei)

parsha sefer bamidbar Jul 07, 2021



No one knew what to do. The homeless man had charged straight through the lobby of a major office building in New York City, immune to the protests and questions of the well-dressed staff and security guards. "Excuse me, you can't go in there," protested the secretary. But to no avail; he stomped right past her, entered the elevator, and rode straight up to the penthouse, where he met the CEO's private secretary. "Do you have an appointment? You can't just barge in here like that," she said with a distinct edge of alarm. But before she could finish her sentence, he stomped past her as well. Bursting into the CEO's office, the homeless man sat down opposite the CEO, put his feet up on the desk, and smiled. "Hi Dad,” he said. “How are you doing?"

"Son, I’ve told you a thousand times, you are not welcome here. You are an embarrassment and a disgrace. Look at yourself! When was the last time you showered, when was the last time you ate a meal? All you do is hurt yourself and waste away your life. I gave you every opportunity in life, I opened every door for you, gave you everything you could possibly want. But you've thrown it all away, and now look at you. You are a failure and a disgrace."

The homeless man nodded, as if he had heard this speech hundreds of times. "You're one to talk, Dad. You might have made it big in finance, but where were you for your family? Where were you during my childhood when I needed you most? You missed my birthdays, school events, and celebrations. I can't remember the last time you showed up to anything that wasn’t a business meeting! You’re so caught up in being "successful" that you have no idea what life is actually about. How much of life have you experienced? What has all your money, success, and fame brought you other than stress and worry? I may not have made anything of myself, but at least I know how to enjoy life! At least I know how to live in the now, to enjoy what I’m doing. Can you say the same?

This argument is rehashed year after year. CEO and homeless son, success and failure. But which is the success, and which is the failure? Some think the CEO is right, while others relate to the son's emotional plea. Many think they're both wrong. A few think they're both right. But maybe they're both wrong and they’re both right.


A Long Journey


The Torah is not only a guide to living a life of truth within the physical world, it is also the literal blueprint and DNA of this physical world. Our physical world is a projection and emanation of the deep spiritual reality described by the Torah. This is the meaning of the Midrash, "Istakel b'Oraisah u'barah almah", Hashem looked into the Torah and used it to create the world.[1] The physical world is an emanation and expression of Torah, the spiritual root of existence.[2] As such, every single word of Torah is of infinite importance.

The Rambam,[3] in line with this idea, explains that if one rejects a single letter of the Torah, it is as if he has rejected the entire Torah. The Ramban explains in the introduction to his commentary on Bereishis that the entire Torah is one elongated Shem Hashem (Name of God), one interconnected sefer (book), a single organic entity. Just as a single missing chromosome can affect an entire human being, the same is true for a Sefer Torah. Even a single missing letter renders the entire text passul (invalid). Every single word and letter in the Torah is absolutely fundamental.[4]

If this is true, the beginning of Parshas Masei is puzzling. The first forty-nine pesukim in the parsha list, one by one, the various places that the Jewish People passed through along their journey in the Midbar (desert). In the majority of these places, nothing of note occurred; the Jewish People simply passed through. Why is it necessary to mention every single place, every single stage of our journey?[5] I would like to develop several deep themes related to these encampments, from which we can learn inspiring and profound ideas. While each theme will be developed separately, they also interconnect into a greater whole.


The Importance of Every Step


Although we often focus on the end result, every single step of a process is of critical importance.

If we truly understood the power of this idea, our view of time and potential would forever change. Consider, for example, a single day of your life. Your day begins with infinite spiritual potential, with 86,400 seconds to utilize.[6] At the very beginning of every day, you have the ability to learn new ideas, improve your relationships, and achieve any number of accomplishments. After 1000 seconds of your day have passed, whatever you accomplished of that time - of that potential- is real, and the rest is lost. However, the potential for the remaining 85,400 seconds is shaped by how you spent the first 1000 seconds. If you spent them well, taking full advantage of your time, sharpening your mind and awareness and building positive momentum, then you now have access to a higher version of yourself with which to continue building and creating your life. If you thought unempowering thoughts or failed to create a positive trajectory - instead choosing to engage in any number of self-destructive activities - then you have set yourself up for a very difficult journey ahead, perhaps diminishing the quality of potential for the rest of your day.[7]

Every thought, word, action, and decision has infinite, cosmic reverberations and repercussions. This may be overwhelming to consider, and it may be unhealthy to continuously fixate upon the severity of each infinitesimal aspect of our lives, but the truth remains nonetheless. We should therefore contemplate this, as this realization will help awaken us to the importance of everything, something truly crucial to recognize. Every single step in our journey creates ripples throughout every aspect of our lives. This is an example of true oneness, and this is the importance of every step. We can now begin to appreciate why the Torah includes every single step of Klal Yisrael's journey.


Enjoying the Journey


There is a story of a man who wanted to climb a mountain. He calculated that it would take him roughly a month to reach the top, so he bought the supplies, packed the food, and started his climb. About two weeks into his climb, he saw a helicopter in the distance. As the helicopter got closer, the pilot slowed down, lowered his window, and called out, "Are you okay? Where are you heading?". The man shouted back "I'm great! I'm climbing this mountain."

Intrigued, the pilot responded, "Really? How long have you been climbing?". "About two weeks," he replied. "I have about another two weeks to go." The pilot thought for a second, and had an idea. "Why don't you hop on board and I'll fly you to the top. This way you'll save so much time!"

He smiled, shook his head, and explained, "I don't want to be on the top, I want to climb to the top."

Very often, we want to be perfect. We don't want to learn, we want to know; we don't want to exercise, we want to be healthy; we don't want to build our relationships, we want to have deep and intimate connection. But the goal of life is not to be perfect or achieve all your goals instantaneously, because you will never “be” perfect. The goal of life is to become perfect, to endlessly strive for more. You will never arrive at perfection, but you can get closer and closer every day. The goal is not to be on top, it's to climb a little more every single day. So many people hate the journey of growth because they want nothing more than to be at the destination. The journey of growth is only enjoyable when you learn to enjoy the journey itself. When you fall in love with the process of growth, when you look forward to the daily struggle, to the incremental stages of progress, to each tiny step forward, that is when you find true happiness.[8]


The Purpose of the Goal


In essence, the goal is necessary, but its importance lies only in how it allows you to journey towards greatness. Every goal is only temporary, for whenever you accomplish it, you will almost immediately create a new one. There are even times when we realize that our goal was not even possible or appropriate to begin with, but it still helped us progress in the right direction. The greatest joy does not come from arriving at our goals, but from the journey itself, the striving itself, the process of progress and the continued elevation of our existential self.

The Ramban quotes the claims of the fools who challenge the worth of pursuing truth. After all, if we will never reach absolute truth, as it transcends our limited minds, what then is the point in pursuing wisdom? Better not to journey at all. The Ramban responds with a profound insight. The goal is not to reach absolute truth, as this is impossible. The goal is to endlessly strive along the winding path towards truth, getting ever closer, even if the ultimate endpoint remains elusive. Every single step we take is progress, and this is the goal of life. An endless journey, but one in which we enjoy every single stage of growth and evolution.[9] This provides an additional explanation for why the Torah describes Klal Yisrael's journey in such detail: the journey itself is infinitely important.

This is why all the places are listed in Parshas Masei. The Jewish People were on a spiritual journey, and every step along the way was essential to that journey. It wasn't only about arriving at Eretz Yisrael, it was about growing through every step of the journey, every step of the process.


The Personal Megillah


A worthwhile journey often includes a long winding path, twisting and turning in all directions, leading you on a seemingly endless quest. Then, at the very last moment, there can be a sudden revelation which retroactively changes your perspective on the entire journey! Like a twist ending in a great story, the last turn can change the way you perceive the entire quest. This is the nature of the final ge’ulah (redemption) When mashiach (messiah) comes, we will suddenly see how all of history was leading us towards our ultimate destination. This is why the end of days is compared to laughter: one laughs when there is a sudden change, and the destination one thought they were heading towards suddenly shifts into something completely unexpected.[10]

The same is true in our own lives. Sometimes, only by looking back and putting all the scattered pieces together can we finally see the beauty and hashgacha (providence) in events that occurred throughout our lives. Any individual moment of your life might may seem meaningless, but held in context of your entire life, this moment suddenly shines with infinite brilliance; it’s now seen as fundamental and deeply meaningful. As we have mentioned before,[11] this is why the Ba'alei Machshava (Jewish thinkers) suggest writing your own personal “megillah”, keeping an account of events, experiences, and choices that occur throughout your life. Megilas Esther contains no open miracle, but when you put all the pieces of the puzzle together, and read them in order, you clearly see the Yad Hashem (Hand of God), how all the seemingly random events fit together so perfectly to create the hidden miracle of Purim. The word megillah (scroll) shares the same root as the words ligalgel (to roll) and migaleh (to reveal). When we roll through the scroll of the megilah, we reveal the presence and hashgachah of Hashem.

 The same is true for our own personal story. Each individual event or experience may seem insignificant and happenstance, but if we put all the pieces together, connecting the dots between the seemingly random events, we begin to see the magic manifest in our own personal megillah. We can suddenly see the turning points in our lives; we retroactively perceive the life-changing decisions and events that until now seemed meaningless and random. Whether it was choosing a specific school, meeting a friend or spouse at a specific time, or visiting a certain place when we did, our past becomes a masterpiece, ready for us to admire and appreciate. On a larger scale, only by seeing all the various stages and details of Klal Yisrael's journey in Parshas Masei could we appreciate the bigger story that was taking place.

There is another layer to this idea as well. Very often, we set out in life with grand goals and a vivid vision for our future. Many years later, when recalling that vision, we realize that we ended up somewhere drastically different than we had originally intended. This is the beauty of a spiritual journey. We set out with tremendous hishtadlus (effort), hoping that our goals are rooted in the pursuit of a higher truth, a higher purpose. But simultaneously, we must have a deep sense of bitachon (trust) that wherever we end up is the ratzon Hashem.[12]


Humanity as Journeyers


Until now, we have shown the beauty and depth of the spiritual journey, but we have not yet reached the essence of what it means for mankind to journey. There is a profound truth within the concept of journeying that touches on the very root of what it means to be human. As humans, we don't simply journey, we are journeyers, we are becomers. Our very essence is to become, to expand, evolve, and transcend our limitations. Our tzelem Elokim - the spark of Godliness within us - does not grant us innate perfection, but rather gives us the innate ability to become perfect.

The Gemara[13] describes Moshe Rabbeinu's journey as he ascended Har Sinai to receive the Torah. Upon his arrival on top, the malachim (angels) began complaining to Hashem, claiming that man has no right to receive the Torah. The malachim believed that they were far superior to mortal beings, and the Torah should therefore remain with them. After all, human beings are lowly and fallible, and will only desecrate it. Hashem tells Moshe to respond to these claims. Moshe is initially too scared to respond to the malachim and tells Hashem that he is "afraid that they will burn him alive". Rav Tzaddok[14] explains that malachim are perfect, without any limitation or sin, so Moshe felt unworthy to respond to their claims. Hashem therefore tells Moshe to grasp on to the Kisei Ha'kavod (Divine Throne) and respond.

Moshe proceeds to do so, asking: “What is written in the Torah?”. Hashem tells Moshe the Aseres Hadibros, including: “I am Hashem your God who took you out of Mitzrayim, don’t serve idols, keep Shabbos, honor your parents, don’t kill, and don’t be jealous.” Moshe then turns to the malachim and asks: “Did Hashem take you out of Mitzrayim? Do you struggle with a desire to worship idols? Do you perform melachah during the week, that you must desist from it on Shabbos? Do you have parents? Do you have a yetzer hara? Do you get jealous?” At this point, the malachim accepted Hashem's will to give the Torah to the Jewish People, even giving Moshe spiritual gifts, and Moshe was able to descend with the Torah.

What is the meaning of this cryptic passage? Moshe’s claim for why the Jewish People are deserving of the Torah focuses on the weaknesses and challenges of human beings, not their perfection. We are limited, imperfect beings with a yetzer hara, prone to mistakes and jealousy. Why is this a mark in our favor? The simple answer to this question is that Moshe wasn’t trying to show humanity’s greatness, he was only trying to clarify why human beings needed the guidance of Torah, and how the Torah was more applicable to the Jewish People than malachim. There is, however, a much deeper layer here as well.


Two Forms of Perfection


There are two different types, or aspects, of perfection. The first is static perfection (shleimus), where something is, has been, and always will be absolutely perfect. Such a being does not struggle, has no conflicting wills, and never fails. The second type of perfection is more nuanced, and in some sense, even more powerful. This is the aspect of becoming perfect (hishtalmus), where a being is created imperfect and has the ability to become, evolve, grow, and work to achieve perfection. This second type of perfection comes with great risk, as the struggle to become perfect will inevitably include moments of failure, difficulty, and even hopelessness.

Moshe showed the malachim that while angels are created as static, perfect beings- the first form of perfection- humanity is capable of becoming perfect, through hard work and free will. The Torah contains infinitely deep spiritual wisdom, and the malachim knew that humanity would never be able to understand its depths on the level that they themselves were capable of. They therefore claimed that the Torah should not be given to humanity, but kept by those who could properly grasp its depths. Moshe countered that the Torah's true purpose is to be both a reflection of higher truth and a gateway for humanity in their journey towards becoming perfect. The Torah and its mitzvos provide us with guidance, refine us, and help us become more and more perfect. The Torah helps us conquer our yetzer hara and overcome our weaknesses.[15] It is therefore irrelevant for malachim, as malachim are already perfect and have no free will.[16]

Rav Tzaddok explains that this is why Hashem told Moshe to hold on to the Kisei Ha'kavod. True kavod (honor) is something that must be chosen, not forced. One gives true honor to something or someone that he approves of, values, and associates with truth and perfection. Malachim cannot give true honor to Hashem, because they cannot help but honor Hashem. It is impossible for them not to acknowledge Hashem and the truth of reality. Humanity, however, is capable of giving true honor to Hashem, because we are capable of choosing not to honor Him. Only because we have free will and can choose to ignore the truths of reality can we also choose to acknowledge Hashem as our creator and root source. It is because we are limited and fallible that we can achieve a unique form of greatness: that of becoming perfect (hishtalmus). This is why Hashem told Moshe to grab onto the Kisei Ha'kavod; it is the place which represents our ability to give kavod to Hashem, as it is the “place” in the spiritual world where Hashem reveals Himself to the created world.[17] It is also the place within the spiritual world that is rooted even higher than the makom (place) of malachim. This is why Hashem tells Moshe to "grab" onto the Kisei Ha'kavod- it is the very concept of ma'asim (actions) that reflect humanity's superiority to malachim. Only humanity can choose to perform physical mitzvos in the physical world, and our ability to be Hashem's sheluchim (messengers) in the physical world is what makes humanity superior to the perfection of malachim. Our greatness lies not in our static perfection, but in our ability to become perfect.


Bris Milah


A fascinating illustration of this principle is the exchange between Rabbi Akiva and Turnusrufus, as described in the Midrash.[18] Turnusrufus questions the mitzvah of bris milah, asking Rabbi Akiva whether he believes that man is more perfect once he undergoes circumcision than he was when Hashem originally created him. In other words, how can man become more perfect through a human act than he was when Hashem originally created him?

Rabbi Akiva explains that this is exactly what he believes, that the human act of circumcision elevates man to a higher level than he was when originally created.  Turnusrufus could not understand this concept, and at first glance, this seems to be a tremendously controversial statement. However, Rabbi Akiva understood that Hashem creates us imperfect to give us the opportunity, ability, and responsibility to perfect ourselves. That is the true perfection of humanity.[19][20]


Creating Your Torah


Our higher root is static perfection, but our mission in this world is to work through the process of becoming our higher, true selves, struggling to transform our imperfection into greatness. This is exactly the theme of the Gemara[21] that we have discussed several times before, which states that while in the womb, a malach (angel) teaches us kol ha'Torah kulah (all of Torah), revealing all the deepest truths of reality. Right before we are born, we lose access to that transcendent Torah. The goal of life is to enter this world imperfect and rebuild all that you once were in the womb. However, this time it will be real, because you have built it yourself. Only by overcoming challenge and difficulty, only by asserting your willpower, can you fulfill your true potential.[22] In essence, our entire life is a story of becoming, of journeying towards our original, higher, and true self.


The Journey Towards Greatness


We all traverse through the journey of life, trying to grasp the ultimate objective truth as well as fulfill our own personal purpose within that higher truth. As Parshas Masei teaches us, every step of our journey is of ultimate importance. But more important still is the necessity to be a journeyer, to continuously grow through life. We are here to achieve greatness, and living without a higher "why" is not truly living. We are the unique creation of Hashem that has been placed in a confusing and dark world, in a state of confusion, with the mission of becoming perfect. Find your unique mission, embrace the struggle, and head towards the infinite while enjoying every step of the process.


[1] Bereishis Rabbah 1:1.

[2] For a deeper understanding of the relationship between the physical and spiritual world, and how to relate to the infinite through the finite, see article on Parshas Vayishlach, section: “Avraham’s Revelation”; see the prologue of this sefer as well.

[3] Hilchos Teshuva 3:8

[4] For more on this topic, see Parshas Vayechi, in particular, section: “Each Part is Fundamental”.

[5] The Ramban alludes to the fact that these forty-two encampments contain many hidden secrets, and the Magen Avraham suggests that they represent the forty-two letter name of Hashem.

[6] See introductory story to article on Parshas Tetzaveh. For more on the topic of potential, see article on Parshas Pekudei.

[7] And if taken to the extreme, this limitation of potential may even apply to the rest of your life.

[8] See article on Parshas Bechukosai for a fuller discussion on happiness.

[9] In a deeper sense, many understand Olam Habah as another stage of growth and self-expansion. We will never be "finished" with our purpose of existing. There are simply different stages of this process, but at our very core, we will journey forever.

[10] Yitzchak’s name means “laughter” and he is associated with mashiach. His birth should have been an impossibility, as his mother, Sarah Imeinu, was barren. When Avraham and Sarah heard the news of Yitzchak’s future birth, they both laughed, as this news was the complete opposite of their natural expectations.


The story of Yosef and the brothers is another example of this spiritual concept. Yosef puts the brothers through trials and tribulations, causing the brothers tremendous hardship and confusion. Yosef’s sudden revelation of “Ani Yosef, ha’od avi chai”- I am Yosef, is my father still alive, creates a sudden retroactive revelation, a twist that creates a subjective reframing of the entire story in the eyes of the brothers.

[11] See articles on Parshas Vayeshev and Parshas Vayigash.

[12] We do not put in a measure of hishtadlus, and a measure of bitachon; we embark with one hundred percent hishtadlus and one hundred percent bitachon as well. In retrospect, we can look back and see how different Hashem's plans were from our original ones, but in the now, we must devote all our energy into achieving the greatness that we currently believe is our true purpose.

[13] Shabbos 88b.

[14] Sichas Malachei Ha'Shareis- Perek 2.

[15] Barasi yetzer hara, barasi lo Torah tavlin (Kiddushin 30b).

[16] The Nefesh Ha’Chaim explains that angels understand reality with such a crystal-clear lens that it is virtually impossible for them to do anything but operate in line with the truth. While they do have a very limited sense of free will, doing something wrong as an angel would be akin to walking into a fire. They may have the free choice to do so, but the scalding hot flames are more than enough to stop them. (See Rav Tzaddok Ha’Kohen- Pri Tzaddik- Kedushas Shabbos- Ma'amar 7, Ramchal- Da'as Tevunos 72.)

[17] A throne is where a King sits and makes himself available and seen by his people, outside of the privacy of his hidden inner chambers. In the same sense, the Kisei Ha’Kavod represents how Hashem reveals and expresses Himself to the world, allowing us to know and experience Him.

[18] Medrash Tanchuma- Tazria: 5.

[19] Bris milah is also the ultimate paradigm of human spiritual growth in a physical and limited world. We take the most physical and potentially animalistic organ and use it to transcend, connecting to the infinite. See article on Parshas Behar relating to the seven weeks of counting the omer for the deeper relationship between seven (the natural) and eight (the transcendent), and why bris milah occurs specifically on the eighth day.

[20] Another example of this dichotomy is the relationship between Torah Shebiksav and Torah Sheba'al Peh. Many Jewish thinkers, quoting Chazal, describe the unique relationship between Torah Sheba’al Peh and Torah Shebiksav as follows:

  • Torah Shebiksav is static and already perfect; it was given to us directly from Hashem Himself, and human beings have no part in its creation.
  • Torah Sheba’al Peh, however, is a constant work in progress, built through human effort.

Torah Shebiksav was given to us complete, requiring no further development, whereas, through human effort, Klal Yisrael has developed Torah Sheba’al Peh throughout the centuries. Torah Shebiksav thus represents static perfection, while Torah Sheba’al Peh represents the human process of becoming perfect. (See Rav Tzaddok, Pri Tzaddik, Lech Lecha- 8.)

It is therefore no surprise that Rabbi Akiva, the same Rabbi Akiva who expressed humanity’s greatness to Turnusrufus through bris milah, is considered the father of Torah Sheba’al Peh. (See Menachos 29b, Sanhedrin 86a, Rav Tzaddok- Resisei Laylah- 56.) For more on the deep nature and purpose of Torah Sheba’al Peh, see the next article on Parshas Devarim.

[21] Niddah 30b. For a fuller discussion of this topic, see article on Parshas Bereishis, section: “Your Creation Story”. See also article on Parshas Mishpatim for a deeper explanation of why this process occurs.

[22] See article on Parshas Tetzaveh for a deeper explanation of why we need free will and the importance of overcoming challenge.


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